Putting football into perspective is not difficult for Oleksandr Zinchenko.
“I’m saying, in my head and to my wife, I really want to be in Ukraine because this is my homeland,” he says. “Watching and following the news where almost every day people are dying for no reason, you’re just asking yourself: what are they (Russia) trying to achieve?”
It is approaching two years since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Visibility aids defiance and the national team’s Euro 2024 play-offs, in which Ukraine will take on Bosnia and Herzegovina in the semi-final in March, are looming large on the horizon. But other geopolitical issues and conflicts — most notably the war in Israel and Gaza — have left the situation in Zinchenko’s homeland fighting for coverage.
“Maybe some people got fatigued about it, but all of us Ukrainians around the world… we can’t be tired from it because this is our lives, this is our country,” the Arsenal defender tells The Athletic. “It’s so hard to be far away from my country every single day. We need to speak about this more and that’s what we’re trying to do.
“Ukrainian people playing abroad in football, tennis, boxing — we need to represent our country. This is our duty. Everyone with a Ukrainian passport needs to do their best to make this victory much closer. Any victories from Ukrainians send great emotions to the people there fighting for our freedom.
“A lot of heroes on the front line watch football.”
Zinchenko, at 27, speaks with authority and maturity. It is to his credit that he is able to focus on football at all with those concerns weighing so heavily on his shoulders.
Things are looking up on that front. Arsenal’s 5-0 win over Crystal Palace provided a much-needed boost after a difficult run of losses. They went into Saturday’s match having lost to West Ham and Fulham in the Premier League and Liverpool in the FA Cup; they won once in seven matches in all competitions, a sequence stretching back to December 9, with profligacy a source of concern.
“Every team that wants to achieve something needs to show a reaction after some defeats,” he says. “Every single person on the planet has an opinion, which I respect. I’m not looking at this situation like you, globally (though). I’m just trying to pay attention to myself, on my game. How much can I help my team on the pitch? How much can we improve?
“The only thing I can tell you is that all of us are working so hard every single day and, trust me, if we are not successful, we are 10 times more frustrated than every fan around the world.”
A team-bonding trip to Dubai before the Palace game helped. Zinchenko and many of the players took their families. “It was an amazing time there — a good refresh,” he says. “The connection between all of us went to another level.
“We had a barbecue over there with everyone so we can get to know each other much better, with the families. It’s so important. A team is like a family when you’re on and off the pitch — always together, supporting each other, pushing each other.”
That barbecue is not to be confused with Mikel Arteta’s visit to see celebrity chef Salt Bae on the trip. “No, no, no,” Zinchenko says with a smile. “I saw the pictures but he didn’t invite us.”
The images of a relaxed Arteta were at odds with his more measured, often stern, approach played out in front of the media.
“He’s a winner,” says Zinchenko, who followed Arteta from Manchester City — with whom the left-back won nine major trophies — to Arsenal in the summer of 2022. “It’s his mentality and character off the pitch as well. When you know him a bit closer as a person, you can straight away say that he’s quite demanding and he pays attention to a lot of small details.
“I really like his vision, the way he sees football and his mentality. Since day one when I met him, I knew he would be an amazing manager.”
Before Zinchenko, Nicholas Jover — Arsenal’s set-piece coach — had made the same switch. In Dubai, he was given time to work with the group, so it was no coincidence that, against Palace, the first two goals stemmed from corners.
“We work so hard on set pieces almost every day and we pay attention a lot on that both defensively and offensively because the game could be so close and they can decide everything,” he explains. “Again, small details make all the difference.”
How Arsenal used blocks at set pieces to unblock their first-half frustrations
Zinchenko addresses every topic with down-the-line honesty and that extends to how his own season has fared to date.
“I’m definitely not the super-happiest man on the planet, but I know there are some moments when you have ups and downs,” he says. “I’m pretty sure that everything will be fine because I’ve been in this position a couple of times in my life and I know how to behave on that.”
The conversation turns to competition for places — including the brief appearance of Jurrien Timber on the opening day of the season when the Dutchman suffered an ACL injury that has ruled him out ever since — form and fitness. Self-analysis is part of the process. Zinchenko does not trade in excuses.
“I know how to deal with (the competition) and there is only one direction to work: even harder and at the end of the season, people are going to judge you, but I’m focusing on the team,” he says.
“You need to look at yourself. What you have done well? What you need to avoid for the future, like some mistakes. But even if you play good, there is always space to improve. The key is just being the best version of yourself every single day.”
The life of a full-back isn’t as straightforward as it used to be. Stepping into midfield is something required of Zinchenko and he is adept at it, but that can create voids in wide areas that opponents attempt to exploit. Like Liverpool and England’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, Zinchenko enjoys joining in and being creative, even if it makes traditionalists — those who want defenders merely to defend — hot under the collar.
“This is one of the parts which we are also working so hard about because, if you step inside in midfield to make some advantage and we suddenly lose the ball somewhere, you need to reorganise well.
“Of course, people can be criticised on this: Trent, me or whoever. But I’m pretty sure both of us are trying to help our team as much as we can and we’re trying to do what our manager is telling us. That’s what we are paying attention to almost every single day, on and off the pitch.”
Zinchenko often plays in midfield for Ukraine. The question of whether he could do it more often for Arsenal remains a source of debate.
“I signed and respect the contract,” he says. “I knew where I was going because I had a dream to play for this club since I was a kid. It doesn’t matter which club I’m going to play for in the future or if I stay here for the rest of my life, I’ll do the same thing. I’ll help the team as much as I can and, wherever the manager sees me (playing), I’ll do my best — even being a keeper!
“I don’t mind, honestly. I feel comfortable in both midfield and as a full-back. I know my weaknesses and my strengths. That’s why I’m trying to work every single day to prove myself.”
He is doing that in new boots, having followed in the footsteps of a former North London rival in Harry Kane by signing with Skechers. Previously with Puma, Zinchenko’s interest was piqued by the England captain’s switch, which coincided with his transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to Bayern Munich last summer. “When big players like him are wearing something (new), you’re going to pay attention and it’s a big influence for the rest,” he explains.
“But if someone tells me something is good, I’m not going to follow it straight away. I need to see them, try them and touch them. (When I did), I was really impressed.”
The process included wearing blacked-out prototypes before the deal with the new boot manufacturer was officially announced. “I’m not joking, some guys were laughing because they don’t know much about Skechers and, especially with the previous colour I wore, the full black… I looked like a referee. But if I didn’t feel comfortable in them on the pitch, I wouldn’t have started the conversation.”
That is a sub-plot to a season that he wants to see continue on an upward trajectory, and trying to emulate the success he had at City, with a developing Arsenal side.
“City have built this machine for a couple of years and (through most of his time at the club) it was with the same players. Every single player knew where he needed to be with their eyes closed. We (Arsenal) are on the right path. I’m not saying we’re trying to copy City, but they are the best team in the world and you always need to learn from the best.”
Pep Guardiola and Arteta share that desire “to win” and eagerness for attention to detail. The main difference between them? “Guardiola has more experience (having) worked with such big clubs in the past (Barcelona and Bayern Munich), so he’s seen these situations already 1,000 times and knows how to react to each one.
“I’m not saying Mikel doesn’t know, of course, but it’s all about experience. I’m pretty sure Mikel is going to have his own legacy, that’s for sure… and an amazing future.”
Zinchenko: ‘When my kids grow, they’ll ask: ‘Daddy, when this war came, what did you do?’
(Top photo: The Athletic)